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General Forge Forums => Site Discussion => Topic started by: Clinton R. Nixon on February 02, 2003, 08:12:34 PM

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Clinton R. Nixon on February 02, 2003, 08:12:34 PM
In this thread (, Ron brought up the Forge definition of 'independent RPGs' and mentioned that further discussion about it should go here. I wanted to go ahead and start this thread, as the topic was weighing on my mind earlier this week.

First, the term is defined for the Forge. We're not re-defining it here. We can discuss it, but be aware of the term's near-immutable status for us.

That said, here's the explanation:

A creator-owned RPG has something going for it that traditionally-published RPG don't. (Quick aside: traditionally-published is a bad term. D&D, Palladium, and all the big RPGs today were originally published in an independent context.) It's independent of any influences the author doesn't want.

As in any media, of course a game is influenced by many different sources. However, creator ownership allows the creator to pick and choose those influences, and disallow any he doesn't want. An RPG that is written by one person and published by another doesn't have that selectivity: the creator's influences are there, but may be deleted from or added to by the influences of the publisher, the perception of the market, the investors, the company's art director, or anyone else involved in the production of the RPG. The creator has no control over these outside influences whatsoever.

A lot of people ask me why we don't just use the term 'creator-owned' around here instead of independent. It's a decent question, to be honest. I like creator-owned more, although it doesn't flow off the tongue as well as independent. The term independent is completely warranted, though, when taken in the context of influences: the game is independent of all influences except those the creator accepts.

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: quozl on February 02, 2003, 08:21:11 PM
To be clear, are Shane Hensley's games and Kevin Siembieda's games indie by The Forge's defintion?

Also, is there an article or something explaining this?  I just want to be correct when I tell someone what The Forge means by indie RPGs.

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Ron Edwards on February 02, 2003, 08:38:02 PM

One of the problems with both Deadlands and Rifts is the extensive amount of work-for-hire involved in their contents.

I count as still-independent, for example, when one person gets some system design carried out by another, then pays him and works the material further for the ultimate game. That's what Greg Stafford did with Robin Laws' input on Hero Wars, to my understanding.

I am dubious, on the other hand, about hiring many writers to contribute (e.g.) the "history chapter" and the "setting chapter" and the "world of X" supplement. Rifts, at this point, exists as an extensive series of Setting books, and it's hard for me to see Kevin Siembieda as the author so much as an executive editor - or even, frankly, as a publisher of others' written material that he straightforwardly buys.

Nothing against Kevin - this is what he does, it flies, and no one is getting screwed. It's a legit thing to do. As I say, though, it's dubious to me whether he can be spoken of as "the creator" any more.

When Rifts started? Absolutely. Now? Uh. Dubious, which is my way of saying, "I'm not inclined to think so."

Deadlands also presents a time-dependent issue. When he first began the game? Probably (I'd have to know a bit more). When he acquired substantial venture capital to finance extensive, extensive work-for-hire on splatbooks and setting material? No, especially since the purpose of his publishing at that time was to get the property optioned for filmmaking.

Since then? Well, since then, I am not sure what constitutes the game. We have quite a few of the original books kicking around (a whole wall of orange and a whole wall of green). We also have Deadlands D20. I don't know who owns all this, really, although I presume it's Shane, in which case it might well count. If Shane does own all it in the three-point sense I described in the Publishing forum, then it boils down to the contents and whether a creator, rather than a school of freelancers, can be said to exist.

One last point: the term "indie" applied to the Forge was neither Clinton's nor my doing, although at the time, I agreed to it. The Forge first existed as Hephaestus' Forge, created by myself and Ed Healy. I didn't think the term "indie" was so loaded as it's turned out to be. My preferred term is "self-published" and/or "creator-owned." The "indie" in the title and URL is historical, which is why Clinton and I spend so much time emphasizing the local definition.


Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Clinton R. Nixon on February 02, 2003, 08:45:08 PM

To answer:

1) There's not an article, unfortunately.

2) In my opinion, Kevin Siembieda's early games are independent. (I'm not as familiar with Shane Hensley's, but Googled him and realized he's the president of Pinnacle, who makes Deadlands. I don't own a copy of it, but my unschooled observation is that a veritable ass-load of people worked on that game, so I'd provisionally say no.) Back to Siembieda: he's published plenty of works by other people, which makes Palladium not an independent company. I think we haven't broached that line of being able to distinguish independent games produced by a non-independent company. It's a hard call to make, as we have no way of determining who actually influenced the game. My personal call is that if a company is made up of more than the game creator(s), no games from it are independent, as they've reached a certain input saturation point. Therefore, no games published by Palladium after it was more than Siembeida and his wife are independent.

However, Ron's the editorial director here, not me. The above's my opinion, but not the Forge's policy, which as I said, hasn't broached that certain point well.

(Edit: Ron cross-posted with me. I leave my statement because I think I made some good points, but read the above as if the earlier statement by Ron didn't exist: he covered everything I would have said.)

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: quozl on February 02, 2003, 08:46:05 PM
Thanks Ron.  I picked some tough examples on purpose and even though you didn't give black & white answers for either, it did help narrow down the definition for me.

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: M. J. Young on February 02, 2003, 10:50:35 PM
O.K., it's certainly a murky issue; let me muck it up more. I'll use Multiverser  and Valdron Inc because I'm intimately familiar with the details.

Starters: E. R. Jones developed the core game concepts and playtested them with friends around the world. Some of those friends contributed significantly to the ideas. One, Richard Lutz, is credited with many of the ideas that became part of the game through play. Jones lost touch with those people, but then brought what he had to me--and nothing was on paper, it was all ideas in his head. He and I started working on text. I contributed many ideas to the framework, and did the bulk of the writing. In the end we finished writing Multiverser: The Game, the Referee's Rules. We also wrote Multiverser: The First Book of Worlds, which for the first year or so always came with the rules--more on that later.

It was clear that neither of us were in a position to finance publication. Further, we both had debts, and that meant creditors. To both finance publication and prevent creditors from seizing our work, we agreed to form a corporation, and to sell stock to investors. We also gave stock to playtesters who were involved at the time of incorporation, as a thanks for their involvement. Jones dropped out of everything at this point and left me to move forward. He and I between us own more than half the company stock; however, the stock is split between preferred and common. I have the controling vote in the company. Stockholders are mostly friends and family, and family of friends. There are, I think, twenty-five, including us.

Immediately upon incorporation, I named a stockholder to be president of the corporation, and immediately presented to him terms for negotiating a license. We discussed these, and came to an agreement. According to the agreement, E. R. Jones and M. Joseph Young own Multiverser; Valdron Inc has exclusive rights to publish it. Nothing can be published in any form bearing the Multiverser identity unless one of us, or a designated heir after our deaths, approves it. The license is extendable at the option of the corporation. On breach, ownership of all rights in all Multiverser product, regardless of origin, reverts to us. Valdron is not limited to our work or Multiverser product, but can publish anything it wishes.

Back to that Book of Worlds. Of the seven worlds in it, the seventh is most interesting. The Zygote Experience is a collaborative effort. The original idea came from the aforementioned Richard Lutz, whose whereabouts is unknown to us; Valdron Inc keeps an account of royalties due him for his contribution under the agreement we reached. E. R. Jones took the idea and expanded it, and gave it to me. I did the detail work and built the world as it exists. It went into the book as our property, with acknowledgement of Lutz' contribution.

The Second Book of Worlds similarly has one world in the back which is not solely our work. John David Walker, who was the company's first president when the license was negotiated, worked with me on the ideas for this one. He, too, is assigned royalties.

These are interesting, and they hardly impact the situation, except for two points.

One is that The Zygote Experience was integrated into the rules as a core concept--that you could botch so badly as to have to go through the process of being born all over again to have a body. That means that in some sense that one scenario is part of the core rules of the game.

The other is that Lutz' and Walker's work is the tip of a potential iceberg. Several people involved in the company have been working on worlds; they've just not been ready for publication. I keep saying that eventually someone besides me is going to have his name alone on the top of a game world description. They're in one sense like modules; they're in another sense part of the Multiverser world. In one sense, they're still all in our control, because we have to approve them; in another sense, they're not our work because we don't create them. In one sense we own them, because they'll belong to us if the license is breached and we get royalties for everything that has the Multiverser name on it; in another sense they're not ours, but essentially works for hire, and if after the breach we were to republish them we'd have to pay royalties to those contributors. So they aren't really part of the game, and yet they are.

The artwork is also an interesting point. I'm not an artist. Valdron has hired an artist to be art director, which means he creates the art or finds others to do so. In theory, either Jones or I, which in practice means me, must approve all the artwork. The original idea in our minds was that artists would submit drawings and we would choose the ones we wanted. In practice that has meant that the artists get together in collusion and decide who is going to submit which requested drawings, and I'll see only one suggested image for each picture I need. I have sometimes managed to get things redrawn. In the first printing I had to go so far as to draw one image myself, because I could not get anyone to give me what I wanted (the art director did a much better job of rendering my concept for that image in the second printing). I vehemently objected to the cover design on The Second Book of Worlds, and kept telling the artists what I wanted, which they insisted was impossible and refused to attempt even after I provided sketches. In the end it came down to a choice between accepting the cover they provided and going to press without a cover. In short, I have theoretical authority over the artwork, but in practice the art director decides what images I get to consider. Now, I could probably get him fired, but then I wouldn't have any in-house art, and for web pages and flyers and other stuff that's extremely valuable. Besides, his cover of the novel is brilliant, so I'm glad I've got him. Besides, I have never thought of artwork as part of the game; it's decoration.

The question is, is Multiverser an independent game (Ron has said in the past that he thought it was, and others have suggested that we would qualify for a forum here) or not? If not, at what point did it cease to be independent? If so, what danger is there given our current business strategy that it would lose that status?

In this regard I should note that within the past month, alongside the publication of our first novel, there was also the authorization of the publication of an e-book, a novel of sorts being electronically published which tells a story using Multiverser ideas as its basis, by someone who is not a stockholder or contributing author and not affiliated with the company or with me, except as a customer and fellow gamer. He had to get permission from one of the authors to use the product concept and from the company to publish it, and the agreement includes royalties to both.

I think the issue murky at best. I sure don't feel like one of the big game companies, but whenever this issue of "independent" or "self-published" (really not right--games don't publish themselves) arises I get very confused about it.

P.S.--I'm not applying for a forum here, and probably would be excluded from the indie awards voting on some other basis (game published too early?) so the question doesn't have much at stake. I'd just like to know what factors really make a difference.
--M. J. Young

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: talysman on February 03, 2003, 01:09:29 AM
here's my two cents:

  • I always took "indie game" to be a reference/analog to "indie label" (music) and "indie film" -- not just a question of creator ownership, but also the freedom and innovation that that ownership implies;
  • I think it's important to note that it's the game that's indie, not the publisher; a sole-proprietor game publisher could take over the rights to other games. what's really at issue is that the game designer doesn't have to play by anyone else's rules.
  • [/list:o]

    . . . not much to contribute, but there it is.

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Valamir on February 03, 2003, 04:49:50 AM
Pinnacle would probably be an interesting case study for you Ron.  I'm not clear on all the details but I believe at one point the company was sold lock stock and barrel to some wannabe media conglomerate company which created all kinds of the problems you highlight with non creator owned material (including dropping lines and long awaited but never completed projects).  To the best of my knowledge Pinnacle is once again in the hands of Shane (although I don't know the actual ownership structure) and he is almost back to being a one man show with many of the old Pinnacle staff being hired as freelancers.

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Ron Edwards on February 03, 2003, 07:44:30 AM
Hi there,

M. J., I'm still inclined to think of Multiverser as an independent game. Much of what you describe sounds like venture-capital (which my definition permits), some teamwork/shared-responsibility (ditto), and some outsourcing for art (ditto).

John, you wrote
I always took "indie game" to be a reference/analog to "indie label" (music) and "indie film" -- not just a question of creator ownership, but also the freedom and innovation that that ownership implies;

I think it's important to note that it's the game that's indie, not the publisher; a sole-proprietor game publisher could take over the rights to other games. what's really at issue is that the game designer doesn't have to play by anyone else's rules.

Your first point, I'm afraid, has to be cast aside for the Forge definition, which is strictly economic and has nothing to do with innovation or content of any kind. It so happens that I think such publishing contributes more, pound for pound, than other forms, but that's a secondary effect and not part of the definition. Someone could put out the most lame-ass retread and if it correponds to my three points, it's independent; someone could put out the groundbreaking mind-shattering most fabulous game ever, and if it didn't correspond to all three points, it wouldn't be independent.

Your second point is well taken. Games are independent, not publishers; a given publisher may or may not put out an independent game (if he's the creator). I'm minded to consider Prince Valiant very, very close although it misses by a hair because "The Chaosium" is on its cover.

I hope everyone is getting the idea that these issues are often time-contextual; "independent-ness" isn't like a gas or vague quality that something just "has," it's an economic description.

Ralph, to my knowledge, at this point, Pinnacle is pretty much Shane. As I say, I'd like to know more about the current status of the original Deadlands before classifying it.


Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Nathan on February 03, 2003, 01:40:06 PM
Great discussion.

I am very hard pressed to find my own answer. I like "creator-owned", but I have seen many people poke holes into that definition from time to time. I don't think we need to concern ourselves with a flawless definition, but it is important to have some sort of definition to work with. A good definition will help clarify the community.

One question I have is - how many people design "indie" games because they have no other choice? If you were offered to design games for a company for $30k a year, would you do it? If you had the funds to start a staffed game company, would you do it? Or do you design "indie" games because you think the benefits are greater?

I hope we don't get into the cycle of going around and around deciding which games are independent and which are not. Would it be helpful to just define a few common elements of an "indie" game and say that if your game shares these elements, it might be an "indie" game? Is it a choice to make an indie game? Or does it just happen?


Nathan Hill

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Ron Edwards on February 03, 2003, 01:45:42 PM
Hi there,

One more point of clarification: the definition I posted on the Publishing forum is exactly the one that's held for the Forge since its very first incarnation. There's never been any other, and it's never been up for debate. Nor have I ever been vague about what I think "independent" means.

Folks' opinions and musings are certainly welcome, but it might as well be said - there's no actual debate being held, and no forseeable chance that the policy or local definition will change.


Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Jared A. Sorensen on February 03, 2003, 01:55:35 PM
I don't see what the big deal with the term "independent." It just means that you're not beholden to anyone. Sure, people might help you out (financial support, discounted services, free labor, emotional support, whatever) but you ultimately call the shots. I would expand this to include the oft-rumored "market" and "industry." If you do whatever the hell you want to do, then you're indie.

And you're cool.

Not as cool as me, or Dio, but cool nonetheless.*

- Jared, Holy Diver

* Not really.

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Jason L Blair on February 03, 2003, 03:40:42 PM
Quote from: Jared A. Sorensen
I would expand this to include the oft-rumored "market" and "industry."

Ignore this sentence. These things do not exist.*

*Ignore that sentence.

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: wraeththu on February 03, 2003, 09:58:23 PM
Interesting Topic.

Personally, I don't really think that I wholly agree with Ron's definition of "Independant RPG."  It all hinges on the word "Creator," which leaves alot of wiggle room.  

What about when the "Creator" of the game is actually a group of people who all claim equal representation in the creation of the property?  Ron states allowing for small groups, but never describes how small is small.  

What about when the "Creator" actively hires out with his own game to get new portions of it written - ie, the Palladium example.  By Ron's Definition, in a strict sense, I have to consider Palladium an "Independant RPG" if I'm to believe that it is all owned and run by one guy.  The definition itself makes no allowance for the shifting of the term "Creator" to apply first to one person and then later on in a games history to a second person.  ie, Ron states that he's wary of calling Rifts "Independant" due to the all teh influence of outside writers, but what it SOUNDS like he's saying is that the Creator of Rifts has changed from the guy who originally thought it up to now be the multitude of folks that write for it as freelancers - and they constitute a group that doesn't fit under the "small group" category listed earlier.

Thus - there's two issues that are not covered by the strict definition, but still somehow remove a game from consideration as Indy here -
1. The size of a group claiming to be a Creator
2. The changeing of Creator Status from one entity to another over the lifetime of a Game.

Given those two problems, I'm inclined to think that there is some fourth point to the Forge's Definition of Indy Games that is probably not yet recognized by the people using that definition.  Those two are uniquely problematic also in that if you alter the term to "Creator-owned" games, both problems persist.

Part of the difficulty as I see it is that "Independant" has the connotation of being outside the mainstream avenues of production.  Some of the examples brought up here, like Rifts/Palladium, are obviously now quite well established companies and not fitting with our typical definition of Indy games.  It's sorta like in Indy Film.  The entire Star Wars franchise is owned by Lucas and can be argued to be an Indy film, but it's wild monetary success plants it firmly in the mainstream.  By definition though, it's probably closer to being an Indy film.

If we have a standard definition that requires no references outside itself within which to identify Indy Games for purposes here, then perhaps some of the confusion will fade away.

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Walt Freitag on February 04, 2003, 06:48:25 AM
What confusion?

It's very simple. An indie game is a game whose creator could, in theory, come to the Forge, and, in theory, someone at the Forge could say, "you know, your game would better fulfill its creator's vision if you eliminated the daily obesity check rolls," and the person could, in theory, respond "you're right, I'll do that in the next edition" or "no, that's not the direction I wanted to go."

If the person you're talking to doesn't have creative control over the work, that can't happen. If the person you're talking to has creative control over the work, but isn't the creator, then that can't happen because the person can't really know, and thus can't make a decision in accorance with, the creator's vision.

Sure there are borderline cases. If you're talking to three people who co-created the game and share creative control based on a common vision and who resolve questions by a healthy consensus process, then the hypothetical dialog can happen. If you're talking to a committee who resolve questions by, say, voting or taking a customer survey, then it cannot. If you're talking to an invidividual who is the creator's chosen successor based on a shared vision and who now has creative control, then the dialog can happen. If you're talking to the current product line manager who acquired creative control by the happenstance of commerce, then it cannot (no matter how much that person claims to grok the original creator's vision). There's no way any group of freelancers can be considered a successor creator or have creative control; the question is whether an owner can maintain full control either when much of the work is being done by a "multiude" of freelancers. I've worked on both sides of the freelancer relationship and I know, the only way to do so is by being a tyrant, sending work back for a seventh revision if you're not happy with the sixth, firing people who disagree with you, and so forth. Film directors and football coaches, controlling lots of money, can be tyrants; it's harder for a game developer. When deadlines must be met and budgets are tight and egos must be considered, it gets very tempting to say, "Well, Joe seems really fond of that Kender clan idea. And he's a really experienced and popular writer, maybe he's right and I should let him put it in."

That, at least, is my understanding of the reasoning behind the Forge's definition of indie. And it seems to me very consistent and logical, not at all arbitrary.

- Walt

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Valamir on February 04, 2003, 06:59:01 AM
It would be interesting, at least as a mental exercise, to postulate what effect expectations of a competitive level of profitability brings to definition of Indie.

One could argue that the minute you start making profit a priority that you have become beholden to that entity known as "the market".  Achieving or preserving that profit level may require the creator to take action that he would rather not but feels is necessary for "success".

Now technically, it is still the creator/owner making the choice.  But in practice the end result of what it means to the game really isn't that much different than if the undesired changes were demanded by a corporate marketing exec.

Not that I'm challenging the definition, but I think it would be a fair point to suggest that to be truly independent a game designer also has to be free from market pressures as well as internal corporate-guy pressures.

Title: Discussion of the term 'independent'
Post by: Ron Edwards on February 04, 2003, 07:24:57 AM
Hi Ralph,

That would fly if I included that business about "freedom from X" in the definition ... which isn't there. Like "innovative," that particular feature is an inference that people project into the definition, but isn't part of it.

Theoretically, the publisher of an independent game could be henpecked by his wife and brother-in-law until he knuckled under to them in every possible business decision. Let's he's the least "free to choose" guy on the planet. Is his game still independent? If it meets my three criteria, yeah.